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Cleo from 5 to 7

The movie within the movie, viewed from the projection booth (Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard as the girl and boy)

Cleo From 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7)

1962. Directed by Agnes Varda. With Corinne Marchand, Antoine Bourseiller, Dorothee Blanck, Dominique Davray.

About two-thirds of the way through this movie, Cleo Victoire, whom we follow during two anxious hours as she awaits the results of a medical test, stops in to visit a friend who's a movie projectionist. Though the movie advertised outside the theater is Elmer Gantry ("Le charlatan!"), what Cleo watches through the projection booth window is something quite different. It's a little silent short done in period style, with references to Buster Keaton, the Keystone Kops, and the Lumiere Brothers' 1895 L'Arroseur arrose. The boy and girl in this short are played by Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina (in his silent-comedy makeup, Godard looks remarkably like Pee-Wee Herman, a cultural nexus waiting to be explored!) Actor/icon Eddie Constantine has a small role, and so does Corinne Marchand, the actress playing Cleo. They run around and wave their arms and fall down and jump up, while melodramatic piano music and projector noise continue on the sound track.

This little entr'acte is one of those larky New Wave in-jokes, a tribute by Vardo to her milieu, her friends, her colleagues (in another scene, composer Michel LeGrand shows up to play some new songs for Cleo). It situates Cleo from 5 to 7 as part of a movement devoted to self-awareness, collaboration, and appreciation for a purer and more spontaneous form of cinema.

And it serves another purpose. Its surrealistic story (you could probably cite Rene Clair as an influence as well) is all about perception and interpretation. In the course of the story, the boy puts on some rather anachronistic sunglasses and the action turns dark: Anna changes from a blonde into a dark-skinned brunette, she gets hit by a truck and dies. Then the boy realizes that "My glasses made everything look black!" He removes them and the scenes is replayed en blanche: this time the girl escapes the truck and the lovers are reunited. There's a serious subject here: the relationship between spectator and action, in cinema and in life.

This is, in microcosm, the question that Cleo from 5 to 7 poses. What can we know about Cleo, observing her from the outside? Cinema just intensifies something that's true about life in general: we see only surfaces, the soul is hidden. Some people have called Cleo a character study, but it's more like a photographic study. Cleo is a beautiful object—it's no coincidence that she's a rising pop star, and that her friend is an artist's model—and she seems entirely exterior. Not just to us: to herself as well. She is constantly looking into mirrors (there's even a shot, beloved of us self-ref fans) where she looks into facing mirrors and sees receeding images of herself going off into infinity. As she examines herself at various moments, she says, "As long as I'm beautiful, I'm alive." She asks, "Does it [the illness] show on my face?" She notes, "I can't see my own fears." And she realizes, "I thought everyone looked at me. I only look at myself." If people are inscrutable to themselves, and to their friends and lovers, what can we who only watch them on film hope to learn about the human heart? We should not kid ourselves about how much cinema reveals, Varda insists.

I want to say a word about the beginning of the movie too. It opens with several feet of leader: the stuff of cinema made visible. Then we see a series of tarot cards laid out on a table as a woman's voice begins to talk about them. Cleo has visited a fortune teller for an advance peek at her medical prognosis, and this fortune teller does in fact predict many of the events and characters to come. It's an interesting prologue to the movie (the "chapters" that the film is divided into start only after this sequence): a mysterious and powerful woman weaves stories out of disjoint pictures, sketches out the plot for us ahead of time, and in a sense calls Cleo From 5 to 7 into being. Mme Varda, I presume?



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein